Villa's Greatest Heroes: Tom 'Pongo' Waring

When the whistle blew, the ball it flew … through the air, through the air.
Like a bird did Pongo sweep and swerve, with mighty verve, and what's this?
Oh my gosh and lummy … was it off his head or tummy? In the net? In the net?
You bet!

They don't write songs like that any more, do they? But then, they don't make players like Pongo Waring either.


Pongo - or Thomas, to give him his real name - was nicknamed after a famous cartoon of the 1930s, rather than due to any olfactory issues. Not that Pongo was the only name Waring earned that would have unforeseen connotations half a century later; as he terrorised defences up and down the country, the crowd dubbed him 'The Gay Cavalier'.

'Gay' paid tribute to his boisterous, fun-loving personality, and 'Cavalier' barely does him justice. Just a handful of men have scored more goals than Waring for Villa; names like John Devey and Joe Bache. And, of course, like Billy Walker. Perhaps the finest player ever to wear claret and blue was Waring's captain - never an easy task.

"There were no rules for Pongo," remembered Walker in his autobiography. "Nobody knew what time he would turn up for training. Ten o'clock, eleven o'clock, twelve o'clock, it made no odds. I think I can claim, as the captain in his days, to be the only person able to handle him. Nobody on the staff could do anything with him."

Such unpredictable behaviour wasn't arrogance or laziness, merely eccentricity. Waring was big-hearted rather than big-headed - a "loveable clown," said Walker - with a multitude of unusual habits.

"He was a funny lad indeed," continued Walker. "We started the week's training on Tuesday mornings and every Tuesday he followed a habit which he could never break. He would go round all the refreshment bars on the ground and finish off the lemonade left in the bottles!"

Villa Park has always loved characters, the Grays and the McGraths, so long as they produce on the pitch. 167 goals in 226 appearances for Villa underlines that Waring did that, although arguably his greatest 90 minutes was not one in a Villa shirt, but one that persuaded the club to buy him.

Like his goalscoring peer, Dixie Dean, Waring made his name at Tranmere Rovers. It was there that he netted an astonishing six goals in one game. The league record of seven, incidentally, is held by Ted Drake, who bagged every one of Arsenal's in a 7-1 win over Villa. We won't talk about that. Still, Arsenal could have been Waring's destination; the Gunners, along with Manchester United and Bolton, were hotly tipped to capture an exciting signature.

In the end, though, the best part of £5,000 handed over by the Villa committee ensured they got their man, amidst a blaze of publicity. 23,000 fans turned out to watch Waring's debut for the reserves against Birmingham City. He scored a hat-trick.

He scored ten hat-tricks for the first-team too, and - as every Villa fan's father, grandfather or great-grandfather has told them - found the net 50 times in one glorious season as the 1930s began. More might perhaps have been made of the feat had Dean (who, unlike Waring, hated his nickname, preferring Bill to Dixie) not managed sixty in a season three years before. Waring's astonishing solo total, though, was far from a solo feat.

In Villa's 42 league matches in the 1930/31 season, they scored a record 128 goals. Waring set the tone for the season on the opening day, scoring all four goals for the visitors as Manchester United were beaten at Old Trafford.

But another tone was set. United scored three in reply, and while Villa took the points, their porous defence would cost them their seventh league title. Arsenal were crowned champions, with second-placed Villa conceding 78 league goals.

Still, the West Midlands was in the headlines. West Bromwich Albion were promoted from Division Two, and beat Birmingham City in the FA Cup Final. Villa, meanwhile, were acclaimed as the best footballing team in the top-flight, and Waring - who repeated his feat of four goals in a game against both Sunderland and West Ham - their best player.

None of that eased the pain. Villa were just over a decade into 37 years without a trophy, between 1920 and 1957, and Waring, capped five times by England, was frequently asked if he would move to a club more consistently challenging for trophies. "Why would I?" he asked in reply. "This is my family."

The love that family bore him was underlined best, ironically, by two of the darkest moments in his career.

The first was in January 1934, when Waring was sent from the field of play for a bad challenge in a match with Tottenham Hotspur. As he walked towards the Villa Park tunnel, the crowd stood as one and applauded him from the field.

They spoke again a year and a half later, when it was decided that Waring's time at Villa had come. 5,000 fans gathered to protest against the transfer. Waring, who would go on to play for Wolves before returning to Tranmere and helping his old side to promotion, was visibly touched - just as he was twenty-two years later, when his beloved club finally put an end to their wait for silverware.

It's one of the cruellest twists of fate in football that Pongo Waring passed away in 1980, and never saw Villa win the league championship they had waited for for so long. But I'm sure, if he was watching somewhere, he was kicking every ball. And probably still nicking the lemonade.